Districts coming up short on reporting school-based arrests

Major discrepancies arise between reported and actual data

A NUMBER of Massachusetts school districts are failing to adhere to data collection measures required by the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act, with some reporting no school-based arrests when their own records show a significant number of arrests.

The discrepancies raise questions about the accuracy of data being gathered under the 2018 law, which reduced the number of non-violent offenses that could trigger an arrest on school grounds and also mandated that school districts report their arrest history so implementation of the law could be monitored.

Only 31 of the state’s 289 school districts reported any school-based arrests during the 2018-2019 school year, but public records requests filed by three advocacy organizations – Citizens for Juvenile Justice, Strategies for Youth, and Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee – suggest many districts failed to comply.

“If schools fail to comply with this important reporting requirement, what would make me believe they are abiding by other important aspects of reform, including specific training around conflict resolution and diversion strategies?” asked Marlies Spanjaard, director of education advocacy for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents defendants unable to afford their own attorney.

School resource officers, who are trained police officers who work in schools, are expected to report arrests to principals who are supposed to pass the information along to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.

Looking just at districts with enrollment above 7,000, Springfield, Worcester, Lowell, New Bedford, Newton, Quincy, Taunton, Brookline, Revere, Everett, Plymouth, Lexington, Cambridge, Methuen, Wachusett, and Malden all reported zero school-based arrests to DESE.

The school records obtained by the three advocacy groups tell a different tale.

Data from the City of Worcester Law Department acquired through a public records request by Citizens for Juvenile Justice showed at least four arrests in the Worcester Public Schools. The school system did not return requests for comment.

Boston, with 54,300 students, reported four school-based arrests to DESE, but the Boston Globe reported there were 114, a number confirmed by a spokesman for the Boston Schools.

“We are looking into this inconsistency, which we believe is human error for that specific entry. We can confirm that there were 114 arrests in the 2018-19 school year,” said the spokesman, Xavier Andrews.

“If it’s ‘human error,’ it’s an error made by a lot of humans at a lot of districts,” said Matthew Cregor, staff attorney for the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee.

Similarly, Springfield Public Schools reported no school-based arrests to DESE, but the Springfield Police Department provided Citizens for Juvenile Justice with records of 41 school-based arrests that year.

Azell Cavaan, a spokeswoman for Springfield Public Schools, initially said in an email that the issue was “possibly an error in reporting by DESE,” but a spokesperson for the state agency said the numbers are inputted by the school districts directly. Cavaan subsequently conceded the error was the school district’s, and she said the error has been corrected.

Paul Foster, the chief of information technology for the Springfield schools, said discrepancies exist because there are issues in getting data systems to match up between the police departments who note them, the school departments that are in charge of inputting them, and DESE’s own system.

Another problem that arose was that in tracking student disciplinary reports, Springfield’s IT department wasn’t properly indicating that some incidents had resulted in law enforcement involvement.

“We’re adding to our reporting that you need to indicate that a particular disciplinary action resulted in an actual arrest. So that was not in there in terms of the data you were looking at on the 2019 school year. To be totally honest, we weren’t able to make the change in time,” he said.

At it stands, some disciplinary incidents have a different code than others when being entered into any school system’s tracking system. The new data tracking requirement by the criminal justice law means adding another field to that system in order to capture student arrest data. “We just weren’t ready yet to start with the changes to the system in order to report the arrests,” he said.

The 31 districts that reported arrests included Chicopee and Framingham, which each reported six; Boston at four; West Springfield and Bridgewater Raynham at three; and Brockton, Lynn, Milton, Pittsfield, and Randolph at two arrests apiece. The rest had one.

Jess Silva-Hodges, a spokesperson for the district, insisted there were only two arrests using DESE’s definition of a school-related arrest, which she said is defined as a student “arrested for any activity conducted on school grounds, during school activities, or due to a referral by any school official.” She said she didn’t know how Youth Advocacy Division defines a school-related arrest.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Advocates are worried about how the poor collection from schools can impact the overall picture they’re trying to get on school policing.

Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which filed many of the records requests, said all too often the decision to place police in schools id driven by emotion and anecdotal stories. “In Massachusetts, we are long overdue to take a data-driven approach to school policing in order to systematically assess its benefits and harms. There is no way to do that without accurate, comprehensive data,” he said.

The concept of cohesive data collection around school arrests is not new. The US Department of Education has been collecting data on school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement since 2009. It’s often the least reported category of their Civil Rights Data collection. The reasoning for that is usually a blame game in which schools say they don’t collect the data, police do. Police then say they don’t collect school-specific data, but point to the courts. Courts label their data as confidential.